What 4G means for smartphone and tablet apps

Tech It Up!

While a thinner, lighter iPhone 5 with a bigger screen is impressive, its most significant enhancement is the ultrafast 4G connection. In fact, all 4G-enabled smartphones and tablets will benefit now that the iPhone has finally embraced the speedier and more durable wireless standard.

Consumers who own 4G devices that run on the Android, Windows Phone 8, and BlackBerry operating systems are already enjoying fewer dropped calls, as well as faster video streaming, gaming, and Internet connectivity, among other improvements. With tens of millions of new iPhone 5 owners joining the party, 4G is now -- to use a "Star Wars" reference -- fully operational.

Beyond maintaining more reliable connections, faster networks will bring massive innovation to mobile apps. Once everyone gets a taste of features like augmented reality navigation, "mobile wallets," and 3D simulated board games, high-tech tricks once restricted to science-fiction movies will become commonplace.

Here is how a new generation of apps on 4G devices will impact our daily lives.

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Getting around
Mapping technologies continue to improve how we get from point A to point B. In the immediate term, voice-enabled apps like Waze -- available for iOS and Android devices -- that help us to identify traffic jams (and offer turn-by-turn directions to avoid them) will only get more reliable with faster connections. Yet these kinds of conveniences are just scratching the surface.

Augmented reality technology lets you view computer-generated graphics within the context of the real world. So if you're walking or in (the passenger seat of!) a car, driving around and trying to find a new pizza place or yoga studio, augmented reality-enabled apps will literally allow you to visualize depictions of where you ultimately want to end up. The same technology will also help you to locate a low-calorie-foods section at the grocery store or the Banana Republic in the shopping mall.

There are already augmented reality apps like Layar Reality Browser (available for iOS and Android devices) and Wikitude (also for iOS and Android) that let you see superimposed images and descriptions of locations while holding your device in front of your eyes. Prior to 4G connectivity, however, this technology was hit and miss. As well, many augmented reality-enabled apps rely on businesses and municipalities to create and update information that can be surfaced by the app. This does not always happen. As more people own 4G devices that take advantage of the state-of-the-art technology, third-party businesses and organizations will be more encouraged to create content to accommodate them.

Buying Things
For years, mobile apps have made it relatively easy to do things like make credit card purchases on the go or take advantage of Groupons and other daily deals in your proximity. The next generation of 4G-enabled mobile applications will make it simple and seamless to pay for a virtual movie ticket or real bag of groceries with just a tap of your device. Your smartphone or tablet, in essence, will transform into a mobile wallet.

Apple's brand-new Passbook app, which requires the most recent iOS 6 operating system in order to work, stores things like coupons, boarding passes, and loyalty cards all in one place. While the iPhone 5 does not include the Near Field Technology (NFC) chip that most easily enables point-of-contact transactions, the company is betting that Passbook will be an interim mobile wallet solution as more consumers get comfortable doing these things with their phones.

Consumers with 4G Android smartphones and tablets already can take advantage of NFC technology by downloading the Google Wallet application. This app lets you make payments from your Visa, MasterCard, American Express, or Discover account just by putting your phone in close proximity to point-of-sale terminals at participating retailers.

NFC-enabled phones, however, are far from perfect. Earlier this year, a security bug in Google Wallet exposed some of the warts in what is still an adolescent technology. That issue was resolved.

Expect the next wave of mobile applications not only to point us to merchandise, groceries, and drink specials that are most relevant for us but also to allow us to pay for and receive loyalty points from anything we end up purchasing.
 
Playing games
Many of us enjoy passing the time by playing simulation games like SimCity and Pocket God on our smartphones and tablets. With 4G and augmented reality technology, these games will soon be able to incorporate elements from the real world. Why create a bank or house from scratch when you can take a picture of one instead? Any physical object in the real world can serve as a starting point or enhancement to what you create and manage virtually.

Many classic board games, including Monopoly, The Game of Life, and Trivial Pursuit, are also popular mobile applications. But although most board games are fun to play on smartphones and tablets, they don't really replicate the experience of sitting around the coffee table with friends and rolling the dice. Augmented reality will eventually create virtual holograms for games that have been around for many generations. While you won't need a 4G connection in the home or anywhere else you have wireless Internet service, it will help when you are sitting around a campfire or in the back seat of the car. Even better, cleaning everything up will be a snap!

Consuming and creating entertainment
It's one thing to watch a movie like "Alien" anywhere we travel on our smartphones and tablets. It's another thing to be able to use augmented reality technology to re-create the classic scene in which the alien pops out of a human chest. That is the purpose of Chest Burster, an iPhone and iPad application that as much as anything illustrates how mobile apps can use augmented reality technology to create new (and sometimes disgusting) forms of homemade entertainment. See for yourself if you dare.

More practically, expect video-sharing applications like Viddy, Klip Video Sharing, or something not yet imagined to take off the way Instagram (available for iOS and Android) did for photo sharing during the 3G era. Smartphones and, to a lesser extent, tablets connected to 4G networks will be able to store and remotely share longer video clips and will also more reliably share video as it's recorded in real time.

Working from wherever
There is nothing particularly revolutionary about keeping connected to the office while on the road with the aid of a smartphone, iPad, or other type of tablet computer. What will be a minor miracle for road warriors is the ability to tap into an HD videoconference call or share and access rich-media documents undisrupted without a wireless Internet connection. Apps like GoToMeeting (available for iOS and Android devices) have features like HD faces that -- for better and worse -- make you feel as if you are sitting next to colleagues in the office conference room.

The "cloud" we keep hearing about that can store our business and personal documents in one place is great. But it's useless if you can't connect to it all the time. With 4G connections , there will be less of a need to find that mobile hotspot at a Starbucks or airport so that you can upload that new video or PowerPoint presentation you produced to Dropbox.

You pay for what you get
Not everything having to do with 4G will lead to nirvana. For starters, you will pay more for both your device and your monthly cell phone plan. As well, most 4G-connected smartphones and tablets consume battery power considerably more quickly than their ancestors. Finally, just because you own a 4G device on a 4G plan, you won't necessarily connect at blazing speeds wherever you travel.

Check with your carrier for coverage maps and pricing information. The future is now.


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